In the hours after Superstorm Sandy swept through New Jersey, the Barnegat Peninsula looked like a war zone. “All the telephone poles were down, gas lines were ruptured and just hissing natural gas into the air,” says state Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Dee. “You had to be very careful. You didn’t want any sparks there. It was a very eerie scene.”
Route 35, which is the north-south artery along the peninsula, was demolished. The sea had swept away large portions of the highway. Two-foot-thick slabs of concrete had been tossed around “like dominoes,” Dee says. Worse than the immediate damage, the destruction of the roadway meant that emergency workers could not reach stricken areas. The day of the storm, the neighborhood of Camp Osborne in Brick caught fire. Firefighters could not reach the scene, and the entire community of 60 homes burned.
The story of how NJDOT re-opened the highway, and how the agency is rebuilding it to make it stronger and better able to resist the next storm will be told at an upcoming conference for transportation planners. Sandy has made planners take greater account of how their projects can weather the storms that are predicted to become increasingly common because of global warming. The $265 million Route 35 rebuilding project includes improved drainage and electrical systems for the pumps mounted on nine-foot metal piers that will keep them running even in case of a flood. The new drainage system will also purify road runoff before dumping it into the bay.
A number of senior NJDOT officers, as well as high-ranking members of the Department of Environmental Protection, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, NJ Transit, and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority will gather Monday through Thursday, July 22 through 25, at the Transportation Review Board Summer Workshop at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. The workshop, called “Driving a Sustainable Urban Environment,” will include a research symposium, sessions on climate change, and transportation tours. It is mostly aimed at transportation officials. For more information, visit 2013adc10trbsummerworkshop.whindo.com.
It turns out the people who work for the state DOT are always thinking about ways to get New Jerseyans out of traffic jams or even out of their metal, pollution-spewing boxes, even as they build more and bigger highways. The Department of Transportation isn’t just the Department of Cars.
One example of that mindset is the electronic “estimated travel time” sign. The signs, which are posted along well-traveled highway routes throughout the state, work by sensing signals from the EZ-Pass transponders and GPS-enabled cell phones of passing vehicles. Each device is assigned a random, anonymous ID number by the system, and that ID number is tracked to its next destination. The system takes speed data from thousands of passing cars and uses that information to estimate the travel time to various locations, and then displays that information for motorists to see.
Drivers can then decide to travel along a less crowded route if they see they are in for a traffic jam. The system, called “Intelligent Transportation Systems,” is meant to reduce congestion and pollution by allowing traffic to flow more efficiently. NJDOT spokesman Dee says this system is just one of the many ways the department is trying to build a more sustainable transportation system for the state.
Another example is the state’s “complete streets” policy, which dictates that when the state builds roads, it builds them with pedestrians and bicyclists in mind, even in cases where those uses would have been ignored in the past. The $400 million Route 52 Causeway replacement project involves the construction of a new bridge between Ocean City and Somers Point. Because of Complete Streets, the new bridge will include a pedestrian walkway and fishing platforms, so that people can use the bridge on foot as well as in cars.
“It’s about giving people options,” Dee says. “The idea is that not everyone wants to use or needs to use their car, so let’s make our roadways safe for those who are on foot.” It is easier to add sidewalks to a road if they are planned in the first place, rather than tacking them on years later when a demand arises. The state also encourages counties and municipalities to adopt “complete streets,” since they build and maintain the majority of roads statewide, and about 60 have signed on so far.
Another recent innovation is intended to help the car-dominated portion of the roadway operate more efficiently. NJDOT is rolling out “traffic signal control” cameras in the next year. Like the estimated travel time signs, these signals collect data about traffic. Unlike the signs, however, this system is linked to traffic lights. Normally at an intersection, the busier of the two roads enjoys a longer green light. Most of the time, this is sensible, but traffic patterns can change quickly. For example, when a football game ends, side streets near a stadium can get clogged with traffic. An intelligent traffic signal could alter the pattern and give more green time to the side streets, clearing the jam.
And that is just what NJDOT is planning to install near the Meadowlands. Adaptive Traffic Control may also come in handy next year when the department plans to start a $900 million project to correct the malfunctioning interchange of I-295 and Route 42 in Camden County. Construction at that major interchange will likely send motorists onto side streets. NJDOT plans to have adaptive traffic signals in place by then to help local streets deal with the influx of traffic from travelers avoiding the construction.
NJDOT is also aiming to reduce reliance on cars by encouraging the development of “transit villages,” which are high density housing developments built with transit access in mind. Such projects have met with resistance from local communities, however. One was voted down in Robbinsville, and the only example in Mercer County is in West Windsor. Dee says more transit villages would mean fewer car trips in the grand scheme of things.
“We need to get the most out of our existing roadways,” Dee says.